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TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.

 

Prescription for pain
As drug abuse rises dramatically here, focus shifts to OxyContin

By TJ Sullivan
Published: 12/15/2002
Ventura County Star

Larry Chambers gripped his mobile phone with no idea who to call.

Driving the streets of Santa Barbara, Chambers, 55, had suddenly turned a corner into the foreign territory of his 20-year-old daughter's drug addiction. Exhausted by lies and drugs, she'd finally revealed her abuse of morphine, Ecstasy and marijuana, but mostly OxyContin, a painkiller so powerful it's sought out as a substitute for heroin.

He circled in the car with her for hours, punching keys on his cell phone, finally finding an out-of-state treatment center that said it would send escorts to meet her the next morning.

Chambers slept in the car outside a motel that night, just in case withdrawal symptoms inspired his daughter to try to sneak away.

Several weeks ago, Chambers was one of more than 250 people who packed a drug awareness meeting in Ojai, attendance spurred, in part, by two overdose deaths this year — one a confirmed overdose of OxyContin and another suspected of being caused by the same drug, but pending the results of a toxicology test.

They talked about numbers, some of the startling statistics cited by law enforcement.

In the Ojai Valley alone drug-related arrests have jumped 164 percent, from 174 in 1998 to more than 460 in 2002.

"Last year in October … we had maybe 20 people in the audience," Nordhoff High School Principal Dan Musick said of the drug awareness meeting. "That was that kind of head-in-the-sand mentality. This time … we had 260-270 people. People see it as a serious and insidious problem."

Ventura County Sheriff Bob Brooks said this month drug abuse in Ventura County appears to be increasing dramatically, echoing recent declarations of Ojai Police Chief Gary Pentis. However, determining just how severe an increase, and why, is a difficult task.

The numbers tell part of the story, though not all police departments in the county have them available, and none routinely tracks arrests by drug type. So, for example, none can say how many people were arrested last year for possession of heroin or OxyContin or cocaine.

Tracking the consequences of drug abuse also is limited. Although analysts follow treatment and incarceration, the county's largest hospitals don't keep counts on overdoses or drug-related emergency room visits.

Drug-related deaths are impossible to tabulate because the county medical examiner-coroner said he doesn't have the resources to keep such statistics.

Nonetheless, Brooks says the arrest totals indicate a "dramatic" rise, one for which he's yet to figure out a cause.

When data from all areas policed by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department are combined for the past three years, they indicate an increase of 71 percent in arrests for being under the influence of a controlled substance, not including alcohol. That's about 2,400 arrests this year alone.

It's an increase that occurred even as the total number of arrests for everything from burglary to assault declined.

"That's just a huge increase," said Brooks, whose department polices the unincorporated county as well as the cities of Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai and Thousand Oaks.
 

"Slept for three days"
 

Chambers' awareness of his daughter's problems came abruptly.

He describes coming off denial almost the way an addict might describe the painful evaporation of a high.

When he realized she was smoking marijuana, he wrote it off as a phase.

"She'll get out of it," he said.

Then there was the call at 3 a.m. from a detox center in San Diego. She explained it away, something to do with a boyfriend behaving badly.

"I got her to see a therapist friend of mine," Chambers said.

Then she began sleeping a lot.

"What really brought this to a head was she slept for three days," he said. "I had to threaten her with the paramedics … and then I'd come back and she'd be asleep."

Even at that point, Chambers concedes, he was still in denial.

After another session with a therapist, his daughter broke down into a confession and uncontrollable sobbing.

Chambers went to Santa Barbara to pick her up. The therapist said she could not return to Ojai because that's where she got her drugs.

And so, Chambers found himself in the car, with the cell phone, circling and punching buttons.

He came off his denial as his daughter was coming off the heroin-like high of OxyContin.
 

OxyContin
 

Although methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin are consistently mentioned among the most common drugs in Ventura County, Ojai authorities say their biggest concern is a rise in abuse of OxyContin, a time-release painkiller that hit the market in 1995 and has since become a focus of abuse and controversy in many eastern states.

Dr. Craig Duncan, medical director of Ventura County's Alcohol and Drug Programs Administration, said county treatment programs haven't seen much OxyContin, which is typically abused by crushing the tablets, defeating the time-release function and delivering a potent, sometimes life-threatening dosage when combined with other drugs. But others speculate the Ojai occurrence may be a sign of things to come.

Drug trends change every 10 years, said Dennis Giroux, who has run Alternative Action Programs, a for-profit treatment program, for 25 years. In the 1960s it was LSD. In the '70s PCP. The '80s saw the rise of crack cocaine, and in the 1990s it was methamphetamine.

"I think the OxyContin is one of the things that could become popular, especially if the media keeps talking about it," Giroux said.

One of the reasons OxyContin is talked about is because it has caused so many deaths through its abuse.

The Drug Enforcement Administration released a brief on it in March that pointed out its main ingredient — oxycodone — was turning up more than ever in emergency room cases, possibly because of the high level of it in OxyContin.

DAWN, the Drug Abuse Warning Network, said that after OxyContin was released in 1995, the mention of oxycodone in emergency room episodes has gone up 239 percent, from 3,190 in 1996 to 10,825 in 2000.

DAWN, which pays hospitals and coroners to gather statistics, says drug-related deaths were relatively constant in Los Angeles County from 1996 to 2000, with heroin and morphine being the most common factor. But oxycodone was among the most common contributors to drug deaths in other cities, including Las Vegas.

Beth Finnerty, an epidemiologist with the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program, gets numerous calls about OxyContin, mostly from journalists inquiring if its abuse patterns have made it to the West Coast.

"A lot of times they say at the meetings I go to … that in areas where heroin isn't readily available, people try to get their hands on OxyContin," she said. "And in Los Angeles heroin is abundant. … So maybe that's why."
 

Other signs
 

Chambers need only look as far as his own family to see that OxyContin's abuse has become an issue to be dealt with in Ventura County.

Although it hasn't yet made it into the columns of statistical data, health-care providers are seeing the start of something.

Lifeline Medical Transport, which provides ambulance service to the Ojai Valley, responded to eight overdoses last year and 22 this year, said Steve Frank, the company's president. Although paramedics often don't know what substance caused the overdose, the increase is jarring.

Frank, who has been running the company for 25 years, compares the problem to the PCP epidemic of the early 1980s, when people who abused it were engulfed in euphoria, believing themselves to have super-human strength, or the ability to fly. They jumped off cliffs and crashed cars into trees.

"With the amount of opiates that we're seeing … it looks like it's beginning to repeat itself, not with PCP, but with OxyContin and some of the others," Frank said.

Dr. Timothy Williamson, an Ojai pediatrician who has worked in the emergency room of Ojai Valley Community Hospital for 25 years, is alarmed as well.

Although the hospital does not keep statistics on overdoses, Williamson estimates the ER in Ojai sees five drug-related overdoses a month.

"The big change has been really the OxyContin," Williamson said, "and unfortunately they're combining it with other drugs … alcohol … marijuana, any other sedative that they can find. I think because it pushes them into oblivion very quickly … to block out their surroundings.

"It must have some societal significance."

OxyContin has tremendous potential for addiction, one that may not be known by its users, Williamson said. People who would otherwise steer clear of an addictive drug like heroin might not know how similar OxyContin is, but, once addicted, might move to heroin during their never-ending pursuit of a high.

Staff members at treatment centers in Ventura County say they're not seeing it turn up yet, but they are seeing plenty of heroin use.

A Ventura methadone clinic, which treats many people suffering from heroin addiction, has seen its daily methadone doses increase to 258 this year, up more than 140 percent from two years ago, said Bill Wilson, an administrative analyst with Western Pacific Medical Corp. The company runs a for-profit methadone clinic in Ventura and several other locations in Southern California.
 

A prescription drug
 

All the talk about OxyContin's ill effects upsets Socorro Sanford, a 46-year-old mother of three living in Oxnard.

"I hate that they are making it sound so bad," she said. "I don't want it to go off the market because there are people like me that need it."

Sanford was prescribed the drug two years ago for chronic pain and, because of it, she said, her life is bearable.

"I've had nine surgeries in the past five years," she said. "And the last surgery was a complete flop, so the doctor said there's nothing I can do anymore. There's nothing else they can do for me."

She tried Vicodin, but it didn't work for her. Methadone was a consideration, but she didn't like the stigma attached to it. She was afraid people would think she was a heroin addict.

And then came OxyContin, a time-release painkiller that doesn't eliminate the pain, but "makes life bearable."

She said she's careful with it, and that her doctor even makes her bring her pill bottle to the office to be sure she's not taking more of it than she should.

"He was real cautious with it," she said. "He basically told me not to pay attention to the hoopla that was around … that he wouldn't prescribe something that was bad for me. If I took it correctly, it was going to help me."
 

Drugs of choice
 

David Marzullo, the resident agent in charge in the DEA's Ventura office, said heroin and methamphetamine are Ventura County's biggest problems, and the amount of drugs being seized by local agencies encourages a similar conclusion.

The Ventura County sheriff's narcotics unit confiscated 105 pounds of methamphetamine and 37 pounds of heroin this year. That's 244 percent more meth and 1,133 percent more heroin than was seized two years ago.

It's enough heroin to get as many as 270,000 people high.

"There's significant amounts of drugs here for the size of the county," Marzullo said.

On Friday, the Oxnard Police Department confiscated 55 pounds of tar heroin, 19 pounds of cocaine and six pounds of methamphetamine. The drugs, valued at $1.8 million, were seized as part of a yearlong investigation that involved seven other agencies and resulted in the arrests of 21 people, including two brothers who own an Oxnard restaurant.

But police say what they catch is a small amount of what's truly available.

"The harder they work, the more they find," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Eric Nishimoto.

Ventura County Undersheriff Craig Husband said the amounts are alarming. "Years ago, if we seized an ounce, that was a big seizure," he said. "Now we're talking about pounds."

Seizures also can be deceiving. Simi Valley police captured 304,710 Ecstasy pills in 2000, but 99 percent of them were the result of a single bust, a package bound for a Simi Valley home that was spotted by U.S. Customs. Only 77 Ecstasy pills were seized in 2000 by Simi Valley patrol officers and detectives.
 

Proposition 36 effect
 

The treatment community cautions against drawing too many conclusions from numbers, particularly arrest counts.

A new state law that went into effect 18 months ago could be providing drug offenders the opportunity to get arrested more than once, making it look like drug abuse is getting worse when it might not be.

Proposition 36, which was approved by 60 percent of Ventura County voters, was intended to route nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of putting them immediately behind bars. As a result, many offenders are being put in outpatient treatment without the constant supervision previously provided by a jail cell.

As a result, some relapse, use drugs, get arrested again and then return to treatment.

Duncan and Giroux both say it's part of the cycle of treatment. They compare it to poking at a hornet's nest. Activity surely will increase, they say.

There are, however, no numbers to support the assertion. Because Proposition 36 is less than 2 years old there is no way to see if the number of drug offenders who pass through treatment is rising. That data won't be available for about another year.

Bill Redmond, a supervising deputy district attorney in Ventura County, said his gut feeling is that some of the increase in arrests can be attributed to repeat arrests. But, he said, "We also have a substantial number of new people who are in this system for the first time who are not career users."

What surprises Redmond is people with no criminal history who are pulled over for a traffic violation only to have the officer discover a bindle of methamphetamine on the front seat.
 

What now?
 

With budget cuts facing all county departments, Sheriff Brooks now struggles with the question of what to do about the apparent increase.

"That's … one I'm not sure we have an answer on," he said.

The county still has its narcotics task force and Brooks intends to keep it in place.

Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, who, prior to being elected a supervisor was an educator at Ojai's Nordhoff High School, said whatever the county does it will have to be considered alongside budget constraints.

"The county's going to have declining resources for everything the county does," he said.

Ginny Connell, executive director and clinical director of Palmer Drug Abuse Program of Ventura County Inc., a nonresidential adolescent substance-abuse treatment program, said there are not enough treatment opportunities in the county, particularly in Ojai.

Some teens say they see drugs everywhere.

"I see a lot more marijuana than Oxy," said Jeff Campbell, a 16-year-old Ojai resident. "You walk down the street and you get hit up for it all the time."

Other teenagers mention alcohol, as well as the prescription drug Vicodin.

"They get it from their parents," said Jade Hendrix-Roach, 14, also of Ojai.

Larry Chambers saw it, too, and now thinks he was avoiding the hard conclusions.

His daughter is finishing treatment and going to 12-step meetings, as is he.

"I thought she'd be graduating or be in her third year of college. ... Instead she's in her third month of detox and there's 60 kids in this AA meeting with me," he said.

Chambers now wants to hold town meetings on the topic and is even considering writing a book about it — he's written 36, mostly publications dealing with finance.

"If I keep denying it, then I don't have to take responsibility," said Chambers. "If I say, 'My daughter is a drug addict' … you don't want to admit that because it makes you feel like a failure.

"I think that drugs lurk in dark places. I think what kills evil is to put it out in the light."

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